Human Rights Watch distributed the following message to European Union Member States in advance of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council meeting on October 17.

We are writing to share with you Human Rights Watch’s latest research on the Democratic Republic of Congo and to urge you to support strong measures, including the application of targeted sanctions, in the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council conclusions on Congo, due to be adopted on October 17. Taking action now could help prevent the situation in Congo from spiraling out of control in the coming weeks – with potentially violent and widespread repercussions across the region.

Pro-democracy youth activists at a protest against election delays in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on September 19, 2016.

Less than 10 weeks before the December 19 deadline for when President Joseph Kabila is due to step down at the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, Congolese authorities have deliberately stalled plans for the organization of elections, President Kabila has repeatedly refused to declare whether he plans to step down, and those loyal to him have systematically sought to silence, repress, and intimidate the growing coalition of voices calling for the constitution to be respected. 

The crisis reached new heights during the week of September 19, when Congolese across the country went to the streets again to protest the electoral commission’s failure to convoke presidential elections, three months before the end of Kabila’s mandate, as called for by the constitution. Security forces responded to the protests with excessive and unnecessary lethal force, killing at least 56 people in the capital, Kinshasa. (See below for more details on the September violence.)

The events of last month might prove to be a glimpse of developments in the coming weeks – on potentially a much larger scale – if President Kabila does not send a clear signal that he will step down at the end of his mandate and allow for the organization of credible elections.

Despite the bleak outlook, there is still a window of opportunity to prevent the worst-case scenarios.

Imposing targeted EU sanctions against senior security force and intelligence officers and government officials responsible for the violent crackdown would send a strong signal that there are consequences for the repressive actions and that the declarations from the EU and its member states are not just empty threats. Such actions could also help deter further violence, rein in the most abusive units and commanders, and increase pressure on President Kabila to step down peacefully at the end of his mandate and help avoid a broader crisis. The European Parliament has also repeatedly called for the EU to implement targeted sanctions in recent months.

The time to act is now – before there are more bodies on the streets and it’s potentially too late to convince President Kabila to change course.

Please see below for a summary of our research on the violence in Kinshasa during the week of September 19. We’ll soon be publishing a report on these findings.

For more background information on the crisis in Congo, please see: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/09/18/democratic-republic-congo-precipice-ending-repression-and-promoting-democratic-rule

Repression during the week of September 19

During the protests in Kinshasa on September 19, 20, and 21, Congolese security forces killed at least 56 people, according to Human Rights Watch research. The actual number of victims could be much higher. Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of over 30 other victims killed by security forces that we are working to verify. 

Most of the victims were killed when security forces fired on crowds of protesters. Others were killed when the security forces burned at least three opposition party headquarters. Many of the bodies of those killed were taken away by the security forces, in an apparent effort to hide the evidence and prevent families from organizing funerals. Some of the bodies were later dumped in the Congo River, and several bodies were later found washed up on the river’s shores in Kinshasa’s Kinsuka neighborhood.

Some of the protesters in Kinshasa also turned violent, beating or burning to death at least three police officers and one civilian. They also burned and looted police stations, a courthouse, public surveillance cameras, Chinese shops, buildings associated with majority party officials, and other places seen as being close to or representative of President Kabila and his government.

Our research found that police officers and members of youth leagues mobilized by ruling party officials and security force officers were also involved in the looting and violence. A member of the ruling party’s youth league told Human Rights Watch that he and other youth were recruited by party officials, paid about US$35 each, and instructed to “disrupt the opposition’s demonstration and cause trouble so that it looks like the violence was sparked by the opposition.” A member of the youth league associated with Vita Club, a soccer team whose president is the army commander Gen. Gabriel Amisi, told Human Rights Watch that he was also called to a meeting in advance of the demonstrations.

Two Congolese security and intelligence officers told Human Rights Watch that ruling party officials and security force officers had recruited members of youth leagues and demobilized fighters to disrupt the demonstrations. “They were there to infiltrate and make the demonstrations explode [into violence] from the inside,” one said. “They would start the trouble, the demonstrators would then respond, and that would then justify the response from the police.” 

In an apparent attempt to block independent observers from documenting the government repression, security forces detained eight international and Congolese journalists, the Filimbi pro-democracy youth leader for Kinshasa, and a Congolese human rights activist soon after the protests began on September 19. The offices of a prominent human rights organization and a civil society platform were also vandalized. Opposition leader Martin Fayulu was badly injured by a teargas canister that hit him in the head, and hospitalized for several days. Another opposition leader, Moise Moni Della, president of the Conservateurs de la Nature et Démocrates (CONADE) political party, was arrested at about 10 a.m. on September 19, while he was on his way to the demonstrations. Soldiers badly beat and then arrested him. He was later charged with pillage and remains in detention.

In the days following the protests, security forces conducted warrantless door-to-door searches in parts of Kinshasa, allegedly looking for goods that had been looted and weapons that were stolen from police stations. Scores of young men were arrested, many of whom appear to have been targeted at random.

Immigration agents arrested Bruno Tshibala, deputy secretary general of the Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social (UDPS), one of the main opposition parties, and spokesperson of the opposition coalition known as the Rassemblement, when he was at Kinshasa’s international airport for a flight to Brussels on October 9. He remains in detention and has been charged with plotting to carry out a massacre, pillage, and devastation, charges which appear to be politically motivated.

According to four Congolese security force and intelligence officers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, members of the Republican Guard presidential security detail – including some Republican Guard units deployed in police uniforms – were responsible for much of the repression during the demonstrations, firing on protesters with live ammunition and attacking the opposition party headquarters.

“The order was given to suppress the demonstrators so that they wouldn’t succeed in their mission,” one officer said. “The order was given to do everything so they didn’t enter Gombe [the part of the capital where most government buildings, the presidency, and embassies are located].” Another said the orders were to “crush” the demonstrations. Republican Guard soldiers, army soldiers, and police who would be deployed in Kinshasa the week of September 19 were paid bonuses on September 16 to motivate them for a strong response during the demonstrations, according to a security officer.

Several officers told Human Rights Watch that Gen. Amisi, army commander of the first zone of defense which includes Kinshasa and other western provinces, and Gen. Ilunga Kampete, overall commander of the Republican Guard, led an operations command center in Kinshasa during the week of September 19 and gave orders to the security force units on the ground that carried out the repression. Gen. Amisi has a long history of involvement in serious human rights abuses and was recently sanctioned by the US government.

At least 12 government officials, members of Kabila’s majority coalition, and security force officers have told Human Rights Watch that the director of the National Intelligence Agency (ANR), Kalev Mutond, has played a leading role in the government’s overall strategy of repression, including the crackdown during the week of September 19, as well as other abuses carried out against human rights and pro-democracy youth activists, opposition leaders and supporters, and others who have participated in peaceful demonstrations and meetings or who have opposed attempts to extend Kabila’s presidency.

Mutond’s intelligence agency has arbitrarily arrested dozens of human rights and pro-democracy youth activists and opposition leaders, many of whom were held incommunicado for weeks or months, without charge and without access to their families or lawyers. Some were put on trial on trumped-up charges – where Mutond also allegedly played a role in intimidating judges and dictating verdicts. Some of those detained by the ANR as part of the government crackdown were badly mistreated or tortured, including through the use of electric shocks on the body and a form of near-drowning that amounts to torture. Another prisoner was forced to lie down and stare into the sun and ordered to do 100 push-ups in mud and gravel, while an ANR agent stood on his heels and beat him with branches when he couldn’t complete the push-ups. ANR agents have also repeatedly intimidated, threatened, and harassed activists, journalists, and opposition leaders or supporters, apparently as part of a broader campaign to spread fear and curtail their work.

Many officials said that Vice Prime Minister and Interior and Security Minister Evariste Boshab has also played an important commanding role in the repression over the past two years. As interior and security minister, he is officially responsible for the police and security services and coordinating the work of provincial governors. These entities have repeatedly banned or repressed opposition demonstrations, jailed activists and opponents, shut down media outlets, and blocked the freedom of movement of opposition leaders. 

Human Rights Watch’s findings are based on interviews with over 50 victims, witnesses, security force officers, and others.